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New techniques and materials set to revolutionise the clothes we wear.
If the term eco-fashion still conjures up images of dresses made out of newspapers or hemp, then think again. A flurry of fresh designs and innovations – from clothes that change shape to suit the occasion, to new fabrics that neutralise air pollution – seem set to prove that sustainable fashion is no longer either a gimmick or an oxymoron.
Take the Malaysian brand ULTRA, that won one of this year’s Ethical Fashion Forum Innovation awards. The idea behind their ULTRA 10 modular collection is that you wear only ten pieces of clothing for an entire year. Featuring a 3-in-1 coat that can deconstruct into a skirt, shirt and a shirt-dress, among others, the collection is the antithesis to fast fashion.
Such an approach wins praise from Lucy Siegle, author of ‘To Die For: is fashion wearing out the world?’: “I tend to admire the designers who are not only designing out waste, but [also rejecting] the ferocious planned obsolescence in fashion [by] moving away from trend and micro trend”, she says. But what about the material these clothes are made from? Many designers are trying out surprising alternatives to cotton and leather. Take milk fibre: made from casein, an odourless protein found in mammalian milk, this has the consistency of silk but with naturally antibacterial properties. It’s been around since the 1930s, but the latest version, developed by German designer Anke Damaske, is chemical-free and biodegradable. Then there’s salmon leather – a dyeable textile made from the skin of farmed fish, which is normally landfilled after the salmon is processed. It’s said to be stronger than ‘land leather’ and, importantly, free of any fishy smell.
But other designers have even bolder ambitions for their materials. Catalytic Clothing is coated in a substance that removes pollutants from the air. It’s the brainchild of designer Helen Storey from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, and chemist Tony Ryan. They are developing a ‘photocatalyst’ which becomes reactive when light shines on it. It breaks down water molecules in the air into highly reactive radicals, which then interact with and neutralise pollutants such as nitrogen oxide. It can be added to detergents and binds to clothes as they are washed. Storey and Ryan hope it will be ready within two years. They argue that if enough people wore it there could be a “noticeable reduction in the level of pollution” in cities.
Reducing pollution in a more low-tech way is also possible, thanks to a new breed of fashion ‘locovore’. Textile artist Rebecca Burgess is creating a “bioregional wardrobe” using only clothing that has been spun, dyed (naturally), or knitted within 150 miles from her front door. She aims to show that “beauty and fashion can function hand-in-hand with sustainability, local economies, and regional agriculture”.
Vicky Murray, Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future, believes that innovative fashion designs can reach people turned off by other sustainability messages. “If you get a greenie in a hemp suit telling you what to do, you’ll be less inspired than by your beautiful best friend”, she says. But for the moment such innovations remain stuck in the niche. “There’s still a big gap in the market for mainstream fashion brands to really integrate sustainability into their business”, says Murray, who helped develop a new module for young designers at the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion. – Sylvia Rowley